Monday, August 23, 2010

Never quite getting there

A Disappearing Number. Directed by Simon McBurney. Complicite. Global Peace Auditorium, Hyderabad. 22 August 2010.

Remember Amadeus? There is one line from the film adaptation of the play that I will never forget. Mozart says to the king, "Forgive me, Majesty. I am a vulgar man, but I assure you my music is not." He may never have said such a thing; we will never know, but we do know that it doesn't matter. But with these few words, we approach something like an understanding of a man whose genius we know only through his music.

No such understanding is given to us of another genius, Srinivasa Ramanujan by watching Complicite's play, A Disappearing Number. In this very slick, techincally and choreographically admirable production, nothing of the man behind the numbers is revealed. Like his formulae, we only approach but never arrive at anything approximating the person Ramanujan was. When you consider that Ramanujan died only 80 years ago, that it shouldn't be hard to find out more about him, it's truly puzzling to see such an opaque representation of the man, even in his brief relationship with G.H.Hardy.

This is not a review. It is an expression of my dissatisfaction of the structure of the play that gives more importance to the modern love story of Ruth Minnen and Al Cooper (the character an Indian American), and an annoying sub-plot involving an Indian call centre employee who calls herself Barbara Jones.

There are curious, unexplored asides involving another character of Indian origin - a Ugandan who insists that she is a British national - in one scene, she comes to make Al Cooper's bed in a hotel and side-steps the question of 'where she's originally from'. Something is being said about identities - Cooper identifies himself as American, the son of Indian parents who left for the States even before he was born, and who has never, ever visited India - but it isn't clear what or what it has to do with Ramanujan. In another scene, Ruth, who is visiting India,  is in a train with a Ugandan of Indian origin - it isn't clear that it's the same character, though it could well be, since it would seems to bolster the play's central and only premise that the pattern is the thing - and asks her what the meaning of the sacred thread is. The Ugandan, in an astonishing display of mystical knowledge, says it represents the mind, body and the soul, all intertwined.

This is an example of the mystical bullshit that the play - perhaps unconsciously; let's be generous - is full of. At various times, characters, some of them supposedly mathematicians who should know better, are appallingly sentimental about numbers. Ruth's telephone number is significant because it contains a  number that Ramanujan once explicated (this telephone number is responsible for a large chunk of the play); in another scene, when Ruth finds out that she is pregnant, she calls Al and tells him that one plus one is not two but three. Oh please.

Then there is the character Ramanujan. You see him in his home, writing on a slate, erasing what he has written with his elbow. His wife remains nameless and is more often than not seen in supposedly respectful half-crouch. In England, to establish his awkwardness in wearing shoes, Ramanujan is shown waddling along Cambridge. Everything about him in England is overdone - his gestures, his facial expressions, even his accent. Is this supposed to be funny? Poignant? What, if we accept that one's demeanour says something about who we are, does this say about Ramanujan? That's he's infantile and incompetent? Comic and inscrutable in every way including in his mathematics that doesn't follow western methods? What do we make of the way he speaks?

Let's talk about accents. We're Indians speaking in English. To ourselves, we don't have an accent. To other ears, our speech might sound strange but no stranger than other accents sound to us. How is this to be represented on stage or on screen? I remember the first film appreciation class I'd ever been to in school. We were 15 then. Someone asked a teacher, who had just shown is Dr. Zhivago, why the people didn't have a Russian accent. "The film's in English. Why should they have Russian accents unless they're Russians speaking to each other in English?" we were asked in return. It was something to think about, and we did. But apparently Complicite didn't think to ask themselves this question, or how they wanted to deal with it.

What this demonstrates is that orientalism is alive and well. India is, to all intents and purposes, still a mystical place where even mathematicians, geniuses though they be, worry about crossing the kalapani, wear their sacred threads and cast their horoscopes and live out the outcomes exactly as predicted, and none of this is problematic in any way at all because this is a story about the early 20th century and such things happened then, this was so, Ramanujan did worry about all these things and probably spoke English with exactly that South Indian wobble we all know and love so well.

Except, this is emphatically not a story about the early 20th century. It's a story about the present, and a supposed discovery of the man and his math by a mathematician and her reluctant but besotted husband. The narrator, a Bengali-Telugu by his name, is also in the present, guiding us through the past to the present time (which we're told in another nugget of mysticism, is All Connected). And he can't seem to bring himself to interrogate anything. If anything, he also gives us his version of the three words that make the sacred thread a symbol of higher-minded abstraction instead of the socially oppressive one is also and really is. At the very least, he ought to have been shamed into silence but of course he won't because the director and the writer have no clue whatsoever of anything other than the prism of the mystic orient through they've decided to view the subject.

It's also an odd and not always unpleasing contrast between the abstract and stripped down mathematics that is at the heart of the play and the highly-overlaid and layered production. At worst, it seems to make math palatable for a viewing audience with spectacle; at best, it is another, spatial expression of concepts that are only half-comprehended but inuited to be beautiful.


There's more to say, but this should suffice. Other not laudatory reviews include this and this one. It should tell us something that most reviews that have appeared in the Indian press are all gushy bedazzlement. There are dissenting views but I haven't seen them written about anywhere. If anyone has, do point them out.


Update: Just for fun, here's Veena's take on the play form three years ago.


Rahul Siddharthan said...

To ourselves, we don't have an accent.

It would be more accurate to say that we have many accents -- Tamil, Bengali, Gujarati, North-Indian, North-East -- and we're used to hearing all of them (except maybe NE). Of course, the same is true of the English (though it may not be true any more that the accent varies across different streets in London).

I'd say portraying Indians speaking English is a different problem from portraying Russians speaking English, because Indians do speak English. But if Ramanujan was played by an Indian Tamil (you don't say), there would have been no need to "ham up" the accent. If the actor was a British Indian (or even ethnic English), he would want to put on an accent in the name of authenticity and would end up hamming it up. This is not unique to portrayals of Indians. Think Dick van Dyke going cockney in "Mary Poppins", or Audrey Hepburn's cockney in "My Fair Lady", or any number of portrayals of "angrez" people in Hindi movies...

Definitely it would make no sense for the people in Dr Zhivago to speak English with a Russian accent -- or to portray Indian villagers talking to each other in broken English. But English-speaking Indians, being portrayed by non-Indians? The answer isn't so obvious to me. At any rate, I don't see any orientalism in it...

Veena said...

Please please tell me that they still have "51 is a prime number" line.

On the play, well, I think its just playing to its audience - significant numbers of people believe that for something to be truly beautiful, it has to have some mystic aura associated with it. If the subject is science, then you have to add even more nonsense to make it prettier. (I know, like the DNA sequence needs a makeover. But what to do? Thats how it is.)

Space Bar said...

Rahul: The accent is only one part of the problems I had that I put under the general rubric of orientalism; it was perhaps an unfortunate paragraph transition that didn't make that clear.

But about the actor: I don't know. The play bill says he is one Shane Shambhu, so I assume he is Brit Asian. The narrator is an actor called Paul Bhattacharjee. Al Cooper is played by Firdous Bamji and for the most part has an Indian American accent that I thought slipped once or twice but I may be wrong.

At any rate, no - it isn't someone like you or I speaking English and whose accents would not need to be hammed up.

Swar and I were talking about this and I am hoping she will also post her thoughts about the play, specifically some things she said about her experience of working with Indian British actors in London, who read her play's characters with a marked and unconvincing "Indian" accent (which, as you say, is as varied as English accents).

My point is precisely that it is not simple. And to do the default, exaggerated accent is to pander to an audience's preconceived notions about place and people.

About the question of orientalism, which I'd like to return to briefly: it is all the pieces together - the unexamined mystical India thing that turned up time and again through the play that was troubling. The sacred thread and its significance, Ramanujan casting his horoscope 'mathematically' and predicting that he'd be dead before he turned 33; the initial refusal to travel abroad then an anecdote about a prayer at a temple, a fast and then the divine permission that allowed him to go abroad.

Even assuming that all this was in the dark and unenlightened past - which I don't necessarily accept - what of how present day India is represented? The voice of one call centre employee; a librarian in Chennai who only speaks in Tamil and who needs to be translated by others for English visitors (they're always English. No Indian in the story wants to know about the man); and autorickshaw driver taking the two visitors to the road where Ramanujan lived.

Finally, you'd know about the math better, because of course it went over my head. But I thought that in an attempt to make it 'human' and comprehensible, they made it peurile, reduced something that is truly beautiful in the abstract, into some new age anodyne statement such as, 'we are all connected to each other, to the past and the future' kind of thing.

Those are things that make it orientalist. This refusal to read the place or the people in new ways and falling back on some ancient default view.

Space Bar said...

Veena: I was going to mention that! :D I don't remember them mentioning the number! They must have heard Bill.

It *was* a beautiful production. Very mesmerising. It would have been even more lovely if it had more substance.

km said...

The Ugandan, in an astonishing display of mystical knowledge, says it represents the mind, body and the soul, all intertwined.


The sacred thread represents lots of cash gifts tucked inside little envelopes.

Banno said...

There was so much hype about the play here. But I missed it. I'm glad I did now.

Rahul Siddharthan said...

SB - well, I haven't seen the play so am only commenting on your review of it. Very likely the orientalism was jarring in many ways and the math was puerile.

But Ramanujan's story is the sort that inspires (if that's the word) orientalism in the most hard-headed. Hardy himself, no softie, said "He would probably have been a greater mathematician if he could have been caught and tamed a little in his youth; he would have discovered more that was new, and that, no doubt, of greater importance. On the other hand, he would have been less of a Ramanujan, and more of a European professor, and the loss might have been greater than the gain." (Hardy later repudiated the last sentence as "ridiculous sentimentalism" -- but the fact that he could succumb to it is telling.) I doubt J C Bose, or C V Raman, or other seminal Indian names would provoke an orientalist reaction.

Back to accents: What do you think of Peter Sellers' Indian accent in "The Party"? I think he nailed it, but it caused much offence at the time, I believe. But was he wrong to do it? Or does the quality of his effort alone redeem him? Most actors aren't Peter Sellers, but should that stop them from trying? If it is offensive to us, is it also offensive of us to imitate American or English accents, or European English accents? Is Sellers' Clouseau (who certainly sounds nothing like an authentic Frenchman) offensive?

I was thinking of the Clouseau example also in the context of portraying non-English speakers. Of course in real life Clouseau would talk to Dreyfus, and to most of the other characters, in French. In the movies they are all shown talking in excellent English, except Clouseau who has an ludicrous accent: why is that? Clearly for comedic value only. Or, the paranoid may argue, the French accent was chosen to accentuate the character's ridiculousness -- but Herbert Lom's Dreyfus, with his very proper and clipped English accent, manages to be equally ridiculous. (The first movie is an exception, in that most of the characters are non-French, and Clouseau's accent is comparatively understated.)

Rahul Siddharthan said...

ps: to continue my previous comment on Hardy: he repudiates the sentimentality in his "twelve lectures", and pages 4 and 5 are particularly interesting reading: he says Ramanujan was an agnostic who observed his religion in order not to hurt his friends or family. He had his peculiarities "like other distinguished men" but was "a man in whose society one could take pleasure, with whom one could drink tea and discuss politics or mathematics; the picture is, in short, not of a wonder from the East, or an inspired idiot, or a psychological freak, but of a rational human being who happened to be a great mathematician."

Again, the fact that Hardy felt compelled to say this shows how overwhelming the desire to "orientalise" him must have been, and still is...

Space Bar said...

Rahul: Thanks for that quote from Hardy. That is exactly the kind of nuance one did not see in the play. Amongst so many sophisticated effects they managed, so many character sketches, they could have just had him do something else simple that did not infantilise him - talk politics, read a newspaper, drink tea with Hardy. But nothing.

About the accents, you raise some very interesting points. Anyone directing such a play/film, to my mind, would have to ask two questions to herself and the cast: 'Why this accent?' and 'What is the effect one wants?' Whatever their given reasons, they may fail or succeed to different degrees. But they do need to ask it. Is the effect parody? Satire? Does it make the character seem strange, alien?

I saw The Party ages and ages ago and apart from birdy num num and Seller's accent, I don't remember a thing. So I wouldn't want to comment on it out of context.

Accents are a cultural marker. They're shorthand for where we're from, what kind of an education we've had etc etc. If the accent does not match the other cultural markers, then it displays either ignorance and condescension or a deeper intent whose effect has to be judged in conjunction with other things.

Space Bar said...

Rahul: '[cont'd] So, yes, if an Indian who was not a late 20th-early 21st century person living in America/US spoke with an American accent, it would not be fine.

What about exaggeration? What if the accent is right, but overdone? What should that tell us? If I'd been the director, I'd have done something with the strength of the accent depending on who else was listening. If a Brit, then more exaggerated, if an Indian, more neutral.

In actual fact, though, whenever Ramanujan 'speaks', it's a letter he's written to Hardy, or portions from his diary. I see absolutely no reason for an exaggerated S.Indian accent under the circs.

For a slightly different account of authenticity in SFF, read Deepa D's essay, I Didn't Dream of Dragons'. Many things there that could apply to accents.

Space Bar said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Space Bar said...

km: :D you speak from experience, I see.

banno: Oh, you should have seen it anyway. The production was stupendous, nothing like we're used to seeing. As spectacle, we just don't do theatre like this and it's worth seeing to learn the possibilities. It was amazingly choreographed, and, somehow, very filmically structured. Think of a single, two-hour-long take. Jansco multiplied!